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Familiar roads for Van Aert, Van Vleuten as Strade Bianche sticks to script

Annemiek van Vleuten and Wout van Aert on the white gravel roads of Strade Bianche
Annemiek van Vleuten and Wout van Aert on the white gravel roads of Strade Bianche (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The organisers of Strade Bianche WorldTour races, RCS Sport, are keeping to tradition for the 2021 editions, using the same 184km route for men and 136km for women as last year, when Wout van Aert and Annemiek van Vleuten triumphed on the white gravel roads around Siena. The races are set to take place on March 6, kicking off the women's WorldTour and as the third race in the men's WorldTour.

The women set off first at 9:10am CET for a total of 31.4km across eight gravel sectors, while the men will tackle 11 sectors and 63km of the iconic Tuscan gravel, setting off from the Piazza del Campo at 11:40am local time.

In 2020's coronavirus-shortened season, Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) came out strong when racing resumed, powering away from breakaway companions Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates) and Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) to win Strade Bianche before taking out his first Monument win in Milan-San Remo. 

"That week in Italy, with my victory in Strade Bianche and shortly after in Milan-San Remo was the most special period of the year for me. It was a very intense time, after the restart of the season, and it was a unique experience to go from one success to another," Van Aert said.

Van Aert went on to win stages of the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de France, the Belgian time trial title and two silver medals at Worlds before transitioning to cyclo-cross, where he won the World Cup overall but had to concede to Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) at Worlds.

"After the Cyclo-cross World Championships I've taken a short break and since then I have started my preparations for the new season. In the beginning, my main focus will be on the one-day races. I'm very much looking forward to my Italian block. Not only because of Strade Bianche, but this time also because of Tirreno-Adriatico."

The course for Strade Bianche is difficult not just because of the rough and often slippery gravel sectors, but also because of its relentlessly undulating profile. The first gravel stretch is 2.1km long and straight, while the second 5.8km sector is the first major difficulty with a long ascent kicking up a more than 10 per cent gradient. Sectors 3 and 4 are 4.4km and 5.5km in length, respectively, and are followed by the paved 4km climb of the Montalcino.

With heart rates up from the climb, the peloton then tackles the longest section of gravel with 11.9km sector 5 and 8km sector 6, separated by only 1 kilometre of paved roads. Both are hilly and technical making for a decisive midpoint of the race.

After a 12km respite, riders hit sector 7, 9.5km in the middle of the Crete Senesi, and with 54km to go, get to the next stretch, the hardest gravel road with steep climbs and descents of 11.5 kilometres. The remaining three gravel stretches are short but double-digit gradient steep and provide a perfect launching pad for a decisive attack.

The demanding finale back to the Piazza del Campo, with gradients up to 16 per cent, has been the make-or-break moment for a list of champions that also includes Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert, Michal Kwiatkowski, Tiesj Benoot and Julian Alaphilippe.

Van Vleuten (Movistar), winner of the last three women's editions, and other past winners Lizzie Deignan and Elisa Longo Borghini of Trek-Segafredo are expected to once again rise to the top of the 134km women's race, which includes eight of the same gravel stretches - the women won't tackle the long sectors 5, 6 and 8 - but will face the same choppy final 35km as the men.